Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Digital Content Consumption

As part of my work for a filmed entertainment company I had to travel to Michigan to meet with a retail group recently. Returning to Tennessee with me after the meeting was a gent I had first worked with years ago at Star Song Records.

We had both been sales reps for the then fledgling record company (before a major music company had bought it and turned it into yet another streamlined soulless label in a big corporate machine) and he had left right when the purchase had gone down. He ended up at one of my competitors, but we had always maintained a cordial relationship.

This past year I have had the occasion to begin working with him and the company he works for in the capacity of distributing some of the films my client makes. It has been fun getting to know him again and working alongside him.

While on this recent trip the conversation turned to the state of the music business. He is still 90% invested in the category (that’s about the percentage of the total sales his company has in music versus filmed entertainment), while after 15 years in it, I finally got out in 2005. We chatted about the massive hemorrhaging in the businesses, huge drops in sales, no growth, poor new artist development, and so much more fun and uplifting stuff.

The conversation wandered into discussing the music and artists we liked, our music collection and things like that. We were each astonished at the others music and video consumption habits. I have been somewhat divorced from the business (and thus the consumer research, trends and other data) so I don’t know if I have moved in a direction most other music consumers have, but my friend seemed astonished at my media consumption habits.

The astonishment started when I asked him “hey, you wouldn’t happen to know how I could unload several thousand CDs would you? They are taking up to much space in my house and the whole used CD business has collapsed so I cant haul them somewhere and get a few dollars each.”

Why in the world would you want to get rid of all your CDs? He asked.

And so I began to tell him how our family is consuming music. CDs are useless to us other than being a transfer device to get music trapped on a plastic disc into the digital world where it belongs. We free the music from its static plastic prison into a series of digital devices, storage pins and network servers in our home. The music resides in a central server that runs in my bottom floor home office and is also backed up on two different mass storage devices. From the server the music, along with our family photos and family videos, are served to 3 different iPods, 4 other digital players, 2 cell phones with music players built in, 2 home entertainment systems, a Tivo player, and can play in the living room on demand through wireless Bluetooth speakers.

Any music we want to listen to on the road is easily spit out onto cheap CD-Rs that we keep in three places (near the three computers in our home). If we want to listen to a particular album, or artist, or playlist of songs, we click a couple windows and out pops a 20 cent plastic disc we can put into an old fashioned CD player in the car and whammo- we’re listening to music. Don’t even need cases or sleeves. When it gets scratched beyond use, or we’re simply done with it, it gets tossed. We can make another the next time we want to listen to that music. And even that practice will be dying out soon as most new cars make it easy to interface portable digital music players into the vehicles sound system.

How do we acquire or listen to new music? Simple. 5 different ways.

1. We subscribe to Rhapsody so on demand we can listen to millions of songs or albums whenever and wherever we want in our home.

2. Free streaming websites. There are now hundreds of websites that provide free/promotional streams of huge hit/current songs and music video on demand. Our 4 kids don’t need or want to buy CDs as most of what they want to listen to that is not on our home network they can get on demand at Radiodisney.com or aol.com.

3. Free permanent downloads. iTunes and other sites occasionally offer free permanent downloads of new and developing artist tracks and even full albums. Great way to experience new music.

4. Borrowed/visiting CDs. When they are inserted into one of the computers on our network iTunes automatically grabs the tracks and inserts them into the network. This probably wanders into the shady side of the digital music world, but hey, iTunes does it on its own- blame Steve Jobs.

5. The occasionally (like maybe 2 times a year) purchased CD. Yes, seems we still participate in this ancient tradition of buying a plastic disc with digital files on them. Very rare occurrence.

Next step is our DVD collection. I just picked up a new 500gig storage device and connected it to our network, and probably will pick up a few more soon. The goal is to get to about 5 terabytes of storage so we can get our DVD collection of films onto the network. It will be great to use the remote and scroll through hundreds and hundreds of films we own and play them on demand.

Once we do that we can stop storing tons of plastic cases and DVD discs in the family room. We’ll gain great new space for art and framed photos.

So back to my traveling and meeting buddy. He was shocked and dismayed. He’s still an old fashioned guy- he loves the look, feel and smell of a CD and the booklet/art and tray card. He pours over the lyrics and text inside. He ponders the liner notes. He doesn’t get me, and I don’t get him. If I want to read the lyrics and other information about the artist or record, I can get volumes of updated information online. And the cover art shows up in most of our digital devices as the music plays.

The great evil of the plastic prison of music and movie discs is that they are bulky and hard to make portable. If I OWN the content (or at least own the right to listen/watch the content), I want to be able to exercise that right whenever and wherever I want. If I’m sitting in the car waiting for Michelle and the girls to get out of Kohl’s (which happens way to often), and it strikes me that I want to listen to Ben Fold’s “Whatever and Ever Amen” album, and its sitting at home in a storage box underneath tons of Christmas ornaments, I get a little pissed off. I own it, I want to listen to it, but it’s trapped on a plastic disc somewhere in the physical world far away from me.

In the world of digital music, I just click and its playing.

Love digital.


Di Eats the Elephant said...

That is so cool. I have the same feeling of being pissed and juggling with the limitations of carrying CDs in my car. I'm not familiar enough with servers to venture putting one in my house (maybe I'll learn), and don't have the extensive iPod, computers, etc., set-up that you have.

I have two questions regarding this:

I had heard that there are problems with using iPod which wants music in a certain format, and with CDs loaded in the computer (I tend to like to load them in the Windows Media Player) and I really don't know what I should be doing so that ALL my music is available WHEREVER and WHENever I want. Seems you would know. What kind of set-up do you suggest for someone just starting out to digitize their entire music world?

My second question is: Do you have any back-up to the files on the server, or is all of your music at risk of some kind of natural or digital disaster (e.g., fire/water/tornado, or server/drunk-friend crash)?

Cool website - loved the YouTube skit! Took a wander over from FMF....


DigitalRich said...

Hey Diane- thanks for visiting, and dropping me a note.

I will cover your comments/questions below in order.

1. Server in your house. Server is a fancy way of saying you have an additional dedicated computer (PC or MAC) that acts as a sort of hub and is connected to your wireless network. On that dedicated machine you can connect external storage that is also accessible through your wireless network, and thus great expand the amount of content you can store and access with any other computers you have that are part of that network. Another solution that does not require you to have a dedicated machine is to get network-able external storage devices. I have a Maxtor network drive that plugs directly into my wireless router and every machine in my house and offices can access it. Great for keeping digital files.

2. I have extensive experience digitizing music and video. I came about this vast experience by being dumb and short-sighted. I first digitized my music library back in, oh, about 1995 or so. I ripped all my CDs into Windows Media files at what I thought was an amazing quality level of 128kbs. Shortly after that I connected my PC to a large sound system and realized if I moved the volume up much more than about 2, I got major hiss. I then ripped everything again at 256kbs, then AGAIN using Windows Lossless a few years later once storage media costs dropped and I could affordably store hundreds of gigabytes of content. I have ALWAYS used Windows Media format, and even when I got my first iPod about 4 or 5 years ago I stuck with WM. When you load WM files into an iPod they are automatically converted into .aac (or mp3 depending on your preference) for play. Well…this past fall I got the new iTouch iPod, and have left Windows Media, and all my other digital media players (except my cell phone) behind. Once I did this, I realized I would have to re-rip my library AGAIN so I could automatically load album covers and not have quality problems moving all my files into iTunes. So, I ripped again using MACs lossless format and now have all my files saved as M4As that can be played by all my media players.

3. If I were starting all over it would be simple- get an iPod. Rip all your CDs using iTunes at 256kbs or better, and load iTunes on all your machines. Once you do that, you can share your library to all machines on your network and have access to all your music (and video).

4. As for backup- yes- I am very careful. I have my full music library based on a dedicated server. I then have that backed up to an external drive. And then I have it backed up once more- along with my video files and all my digital photos/images. I lost a bunch of music once several years ago and will never let that happen again.

If you need any additional help or details on how to do anything above let me know!